When you tell 60 children who have sent their entire lives living in mud huts that they are about to move into the brand new house, the construction of which they've witnessed slowly come together over the course of five years, they will not immediately be inclined to believe you. They will, in fact, come up with all kinds of reasons that they will not be able to move into the new house.
There are no bed frames, no mattresses, no sheets, and no curtains - they will point out to you, and at the time of the pointing out they will be right. What's more striking are the things that they don't point out - all of the rooms that won't be occupied aren't yet painted, none of the hallways are, the multiple-purpose room is entirely unusable. The kids couldn't care less about those things; they know the purpose of a house: the house is to live in and sleep in, to gather in a room with your closest friends and share secrets long after you're supposed to be asleep. It's to have a place to put your action figures where they can be prominently displayed. What they know is that a house doesn't have to be perfect to be home...but it does have to have beds and mattresses...and by the way the rooms aren't big enough to hold the number of beds we are describing to them, in case we hadn't noticed.
And then on one magical day, perhaps not the exact day we had expected but within two days of that day, a large truck arrives carrying 60 mattresses - the fat ones, not the thin ones - and just a hint of disbelief is carried away in its newly emptied bed. Later the same day another truck offloads wooden bunk bed frames and carries away an even greater load of disbelief as the children realize that this plan we've been describing to them, right down to the fact that they'll each have their own bed with their own brand new mattresses - will actually come into being not just someday, but someday soon.
We even bring them in and show them exactly which rooms are their new rooms, and before long the new roommates have formed together into a cleaning crew, removing every hint of dust or dirt from floors, walls, doors, and windows. Gone is their disbelief, now entirely replaced by eager expectation. Mori speaks almost no English, but he finds the words to narrate to us which bed every boy in his room is going to sleep in, and walks around for two days telling everyone willing to listen, "Ocira sleep up, I sleep down" except the down part is so full of expectancy that it comes out "dowwwwwwwnnnnn."
Of course African transport isn't exactly synonymous with reliability, and we find ourselves waiting on those curtains and bedsheets - the ones we bought all the way in Kampala, Uganda (eight hours away by bus). For some inexplicable reason when the purchasers arrived here on a bus with the curtains, the bus operator refused to open the cargo hold and continued on to Juba, Sudan. The next day they forgot to load them on to the next bus. The day after they remembered, but the bus broke down. Each day at least a dozen children ask, "will today be the day?" and we wearily shake our heads.
After waiting three days, we decide that curtains or no curtains it's time to move. A house doesn't have to be perfect to be a home, and the anticipation and excitement for this particular home have become palpable. We had hoped to move over the weekend, but instead we greet the kids as they return from school on Monday afternoon and tell them, "as soon as everyone in your room has their belongings packed up, come to the church, and we'll bring you to your new room." General pandemonium ensues, with children throwing whatever clothing, shoes, and special items they own into an assortment of bags, luggage, and cardboard boxes. Despite the dirty, sweaty nature of the task before them, many of them put on their nicest clothes, some even donning ties to mark the occasion. Some sit silently in the church with their belongings awaiting further direction; some are balls of frenetic activity, bouncing back and forth from one place to another to make sure everything they have is really there.
Soon the members of an entire room are assembled, and they look at us imploringly, and we know that the time has really come. We gather them together for a photo, and then they pick up their bags and walk together the 200 meters from church to house.
If the sun weren't shining that Monday it wouldn't have mattered, because the grins on the faces of those children as they moved, room by room, into their new house, would have illuminated the whole of south Sudan.
Many of the youngest children have spent their entire lives sharing a mattress with someone, and the first thing they do in their new rooms is climb into whichever bed has become their own, though it seems unlikely that they'll easily be able to fall asleep there that first night, so overcome are they with excitement.
One group of boys immediately decorate their room with whatever bits of fabric they have around, and as I come down the hallway they welcome me to their room and explain that it is already the smartest room in the house.
I ask Saidi to show me his new room, and he sets off five paces ahead of me, moving with a determination that is only softened by the bounce of his shoulders and his wide angle smile. As I enter, there amidst his brothers he throws his arms open, turns to me and proclaims, "We have waited five years for this house. Now we are here, and it is so good. This is my room, and it shines! God bless this house! Thank you! You are welcome."
Days here are generally long, are often wearying, and tend to produce the most unexpected challenges. On days, however, when I get to stand in the middle of a milestone in life for the children we are here to serve, all of the hours, all the fatigue, all the difficulty recede into the darkness; joy rules the day. And so it is.